America’s Hidden Common Ground on Overcoming Divisiveness

April 27, 2021

This Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground survey, fielded in February 2021, finds a powerful consensus across political affiliations that the nation needs to move beyond the destructive divisiveness that plagues our politics. It also finds common ground on several approaches to overcoming divisiveness. Findings from this research update and expand on Public Agenda’s 2019 Hidden Common Ground report on divisiveness in American public life.

Findings include:

  1. Americans are united across partisan lines in seeing divisiveness as a major problem and believe it has made dealing with the pandemic and other critical challenges more difficult. Yet most think there is more common ground among the public than is typically acknowledged, and many have worked across partisan lines in their communities. 
  2. Few Americans are optimistic that the country can overcome destructive political divisiveness in the coming years. Most, however, believe it is essential to try, particularly after the attack on the U.S. Capitol.  
  3. A majority of Americans think that divisiveness is driven more by leaders than by ordinary people. Few see any of the societal actors asked about in the survey—including social media companies and local and national politicians—as particularly constructive, suggesting a “constructiveness desert” in American public life.
  4. A plurality of Americans think that a path out of divisiveness will require the efforts of both leaders and the public, and that the concern is less about people having differences of opinion and more about learning how to disagree constructively.
  5. To address divisiveness, Americans across the political spectrum believe that our civic culture must change and that we need structural political and education reforms and a more equitable economy. But significantly fewer Republicans than Democrats, Independents or apolitical people recognize the impacts of racism, which may complicate addressing our nation’s challenges.

Public Agenda’s Hidden Common Ground® initiative challenges the narrative that Americans are hopelessly divided and incapable of working together. Through research, journalism, and public engagement, Hidden Common Ground helps Americans identify and strengthen their common ground, productively navigate their differences, and create fair and effective solutions to the challenges of our time.

Hidden Common Ground explores issues including overcoming divisiveness, responses to the coronavirus, health care, economic opportunity, racism and police reform, and immigration.

The Kettering Foundation is a research partner of the Hidden Common Ground initiative. Hidden Common Ground is supported by a diverse group of foundations including Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Civic Health Project and through the generosity of individual donors.

This report summarizes findings from a nationally representative online survey of 1,283 adult Americans 18 years and older. The survey was fielded February 23 to 26, 2021 by Ipsos. Respondents completed the survey in English. The poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for all respondents. 

The sample was randomly drawn from Ipsos’ online panel, partner online panel sources, and “river” sampling. Ipsos calibrates respondent characteristics to be representative of the U.S. Population using standard procedures such as raking-ratio adjustments. The source of these population targets is U.S. Census 2018 American Community Survey data. Post-hoc weights were made to the population characteristics on gender, age, race/ethnicity, region, and education. The research includes comparisons to a 2019 Public Agenda Hidden Common Ground survey.

For a complete survey methodology, download the topline with full question wording and cross tabulations by political affiliation.

New York, NY (April 27, 2021) — As the country moves forward after the verdict in the murder of George Floyd, new research from the Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground initiative finds that Americans share a deep sense of concern about partisan divisiveness but feel that it is important to try to find a pathway forward to mend the nation. The 2021 Public Agenda/USA TODAY America’s Hidden Common Ground® on Overcoming Divisiveness: Charting a Path Forward asked Americans about the toll of partisan divisiveness on the nation and how we can overcome it, especially as we continue to grapple with an ongoing pandemic and the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol insurrection. 

“Most Americans recognize the impacts of divisiveness on our civic and political life and want to find a path forward,” said David Schleifer, Director of Research and Interim Co-President of Public Agenda. “People agree on several concrete steps for addressing divisiveness and want better ways to understand and connect with others across partisan divides.”

The 2021 Hidden Common Ground research on Overcoming Divisiveness found two-thirds of Americans believe that our nation deals with disagreements in mostly destructive ways. Republicans (65 percent), Democrats (66 percent), Independents (64 percent), and apolitical people (60 percent) were all united in this belief. One third of Americans say that divisiveness has impacted their personal lives, such as causing depression or fights with friends and family.  

Americans largely agree that political divisiveness has made it more difficult to navigate the recent challenges faced by the nation, including the health and economic impacts of the ongoing pandemic, the 2020 presidential election, and resolving tensions between people of color and the police.

The report found little optimism about the nation’s ability to reduce partisan divisiveness. Only about a quarter of Americans think the country will become more constructive over the next ten years in how it deals with disagreements. About four in ten Americans say that it will become more destructive and about a quarter think it will stay the same.

Despite these challenges, the survey found that 71 percent of Americans believe that there is more common ground among the American people than the news media and political leaders portray. This belief is relatively unchanged since Public Agenda’s October 2019 survey on overcoming divisiveness. This belief is widely held by Democrats (65 percent), Independents (76 percent), Republicans (76 percent), and apolitical people (70 percent). Additionally, 61 percent of Americans, including 60 percent each of Republicans and Democrats, report that they have often or sometimes had constructive conversations with someone whose political views are different from their own. And 45 percent of Americans say they have often or sometimes worked together to try to solve a problem in their community with someone who has different political views than theirs.

An overwhelming 93 percent of Americans believe that it is important to reduce divisiveness in America, and agree on many approaches to doing so. Approaches to overcoming divisiveness that majorities of Americans across political affiliations agree on include giving people a greater voice in the decisions that affect their lives; making it easier for third party candidates to run for office; and expanding economic opportunity. Americans also agree across party lines on the importance of teaching conflict resolution, regulating social media, and creating more opportunities for people to talk and interact with those who have different values and views than their own. 

“The research found striking agreement, across both partisan and racial lines, on the means to overcome America’s debilitating political divisiveness. These range from the interpersonal (teaching conflict resolution) to public policy (making sure internet companies cannot profit from divisiveness) to deep structural transformations (people gaining a greater voice in democratic decision-making and creating truly equitable economic opportunity),” said Will Friedman, Senior Fellow at Public Agenda. “Doing so can help to  chart a path toward a more collaborative and just society.”

Relatively few people are worried about Americans having too many fundamental disagreements and conflicting values. More are worried that Americans don’t know how to talk about their disagreements and conflicts in constructive ways or worry about both problems equally. Americans express a strong desire to better understand others across political lines. About two-thirds of Democrats, Independents and apolitical people say it is important to them to have better ways to understand the views and values of ordinary people who identify as Republicans. Similarly, about two-thirds of Republicans, Independents and apolitical people say it is important to them to have better ways to understand the views and values of ordinary people who identify as Democrats.  

This report is based on a nationally representative online survey of 1,283 adult Americans 18 years and older. The survey was fielded February 23 to 26, 2021 for Public Agenda by Ipsos. Respondents completed the survey in English. The poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for all respondents. 

The sample was randomly drawn from Ipsos’ online panel, partner online panel sources, and “river” sampling. Ipsos calibrates respondent characteristics to be representative of the U.S. Population using standard procedures such as raking-ratio adjustments. The source of these population targets is U.S. Census 2018 American Community Survey data. Post-hoc weights were made to the population characteristics on gender, age, race/ethnicity, region, and education. The research includes comparisons to a 2019 Public Agenda Hidden Common Ground survey.

For a complete survey methodology, the topline with full question wording and cross tabulations by political affiliation, please go to www.publicagenda.org/reports/overcoming-divisiveness-charting-a-path-forward or email research@publicagenda.org

Read the full report: https://www.publicagenda.org/reports/overcoming-divisiveness-charting-a-path-forward/

This Public Agenda/USA TODAY report is part of the Hidden Common Ground initiative, spearheaded by Public Agenda and USA TODAY, with the National Issues Forums Institute, the America Amplified public media consortium and America Talks. Through research, journalism and public engagement, Hidden Common Ground is designed to help Americans identify and strengthen their common ground, productively navigate their differences, and create fair and effective solutions to the challenges of our time. 

The Kettering Foundation served as a collaborator in this research. This research is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation and Civic Health Project.